Comics and Medicine 2012: My thoughts

As for the writer, his task is to be more than a doctor …

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

According to popular opinion, paper is a dying medium.  Engaged reading is a dying activity.  No one has new stories to tell.  Everything can be compressed into the X number of characters that a tweet allows.  We want our entertainment easy and our brains mushy.

Comics and Medicine/Graphic Medicine suggests something totally different—something that reminds us that the best stories are difficult, transforming, imaginative, full of the kind of creativity that shatters and sharpens minds.  This year’s conference blew me away.  The two previous iterations I attended (Comics and Medicine in Chicago 2011 and Graphic Medicine in Leeds 2011) were equally mind-blowing, but this go-around was remarkable for the number of artists who were displaying their work and the approaches they are taking in putting their experiences into the language of comics and visual storytelling.  Jenny Lin‘s book Skinny Leg uses pop-up technique to convey her experience after a truck ran over Lin’s leg (yes! ran over her leg!).  Nancy Andrews‘ work implements film, photography, drawing, painting, ink wash, etc. to open up conversations about ICU-related trauma (one of her central images is a surgically created hybrid—part woman, part bird—gorgeous, wrenching).  I knew of Sarafin’s Asylum Squad (which draws on her time in a psychiatric hospital) before attending the conference, but getting a chance to hear her engage with her work was eye-opening (journalist Desmond Cole attended the conference and has written about Sarafin here).  I also had the honor of sharing a panel with Dana Walrath, whose Aliceheimers records dementia-influenced conversations with her mother using drawing and cut-out (she fashions the clothes of her characters from scraps taken from Alice in Wonderland) in a way that is simultaneously gutting and uplifting.  Also showcased were brilliant comics that, at first glance, seemed relatively straightforward; these destroyed you with a poignant word, a splash of red ink, or just honest storytelling.  Andrew Godfrey‘s CF Diaries and Rosalind Penfold‘s Dragonslippers are just a couple (after Godfrey presented, an audience member responded, “You’re charging 6 dollars for CF Diaries, but it is priceless.”).  There are so many more and I encourage you to check the Graphic Medicine website (the fully searchable version of which will be up and running very soon, I’m told—but here is the blog and you should “like” the facebook page, too) and then go read some books and then go make your own!

Indeed, one of the ideas that the conference emphasizes is that anyone with an illness-related story should have a platform to share it—or be able to access stories that would be a help to them.  Some of the most popular sessions of the conference were the workshops, which gave attendees the chance to get tips and guidance from a number of different practitioners on creating comics.  I attended two, the first jointly led by Comic Nurse (MK Czerwiec) and Michael Green (who was the first person to offer a course to medical students on comics and medicine; he passed out a collection of comics that his students have made that I can’t wait to pore over).  The second was led by the amazing Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow).  The workshops were valuable for everyone who attended, from the most seasoned artist (Joyce Farmer came to MK and Michael’s session!) to those less comfortable with drawing.  I came away from both feeling like drawing is vital and living—and community-enhancing.  MK led us through a jam comic which asked us to build a series of four-panel comics with each other.  Brian’s session attuned us to the choices we have when we put pen to paper, discussing in particular how panel shape, size, and placement can shift perspectives and focus our eyes.

At its heart, Graphic Medicine is precisely about shifting our perspectives on our world and our bodies.  Ian Williams, who has been central to bringing together this growing community of artists, academics, and heath care workers (he started the Graphic Medicine website—though has done so much more than that) gave a talk that traced the iconography of illness from nineteenth-century medical photography to current comics (including his own, which draw from his life as a general practitioner in twisted and genius ways).  Comics, he argued, place the power of images in the hands of the individual rather than the institution.  Building on similar questions of inherited “knowledge,” in a panel on “Studio Time in the Literature and Medicine Classroom,” Tess Jones, Scott Smith, and Susan Squier explored how comics help us to approach the act of criticism as a task that not only opens eyes, but reaches outward; we should approach study as something socially engaging, not remote or privileged.  In other words, talks that leaned academic also exposed the potential of comics to move, deepen, reach out, connect.

There is so much more to talk about—people I met or re-connected with, conversations I had, other amazing talks I attended, talks I wish I could have attended (fortunately, they will be available as podcasts in the coming weeks), oh and the keynote presentations and opening film!—but I think I need to wrap up.  I feel very grateful that I was able to attend the conference this year.  Very inspired by people and paper.

Thank you again to the organizing committee and their amazing volunteers.  I’m going to go cut some things up now!

Briefly, Comics and Medicine 2012

I plan to write a more detailed post about what I learned at the Comics and Medicine conference this year.  I’m still in Toronto and am processing the whole thing—but I wanted to write briefly to give recognition and thanks first to the organizing committee:  MK Czerwiec, Brian Fies, Michael Green, Susan Squier, Shelley Wall, and Ian Williams.  Very special thanks to Shelley Wall, who had most of the conference riding on her shoulders.  She carried it off brilliantly and super-humanly (with the help of an amazing team of volunteers).  Shelley also has a set of new and really gorgeous tattoos!

Comics and Medicine is unlike any conference I have been to before.  Made up of a range of participants (including artists, academics, and healthcare professionals) who all share a vital interest in issues related to healthcare and the patient experience, the gathering feels more like a community than a conference.  On a personal note, last year, I walked away transformed and inspired.  This year, I walk away both heavy-hearted and incredibly eager—aware of the reality of what’s ahead of me in completing my project.  Off the top of my head (and this is NOT a complete list):  Deeply in awe of the work of Nancy Andrews, Andrew Godfrey, Riva Lehrer, and Dana Walrath (who, it turns out, is my kindred collager!).  And taking with me a powerful sequence of mental words and images from Brian Fies, Sarah Lightman, Riva Lehrer (mentioning her name twice is hardly enough!), Nancy K. Miller, Susan Squier, and Nicola Streeten (again, a VERY incomplete list!).

Ridiculous thanks for the friendships of MK Czerwiec and Ian Williams, without whom I have no idea.

More coming!